LOS ANGELES -- From the moment he announced he was returning for his senior year last December, Matt Barkley had waited 254 days for this game and this season.
If you take it back to when the USC Trojans were first hit with severe sanctions from the NCAA that included a two-year bowl ban in 2010, Barkley had really waited 814 days for this moment.
He was finally walking into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as a Heisman frontrunner, quarterbacking the No. 1-ranked Trojans in front of a sold out crowd of 93,607 and a national television audience.
It was everything he had dreamed of when he initially committed to USC in 2009. It was the kind of senior season he envisioned having when he called Pete Carroll one late January afternoon on his cellphone and told him his decision; bypassing a highly publicized and drawn-out hat dance.
“I always knew where I wanted to go,” Barkley said. “This is always where I wanted to be.”
His commitment to USC and staying where he always wanted, never wavered when he could have easily transferred to another school without penalty following the sanctions. He could have left again last year for a lucrative NFL contract after leading USC to a 50-0 dismantling of UCLA and a top-10 finish.
“He has really chosen USC four times if you think about it,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said. “Out of high school, when he could have transferred for two years after the sanctions and when he could have left for the NFL.”
After all this waiting, it was only natural for the most patient Trojan in the school’s history to finally become impatient when he took the field for his senior season against Hawaii.
It took Barkley all of 14 seconds to connect with Marqise Lee on a season-opening 75-yard touchdown pass once he finally got under center. One play, one pass, one touchdown.
“It was a pass just to get the ball rolling to tell you the truth,” said Barkley, who connected on 23-of-38 passes for 372 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. “It was an easy out. He really had to make one man miss and he did. It was a play that you expect to get a couple of yards, but he made his man miss so it turned out to be more.”
When USC coach Lane Kiffin sat down to devise a game plan against Hawaii and his former mentor, Norm Chow, he leaned heavily toward the way last season ended. It didn’t take an offensive guru to figure out USC was hard to stop when Lee and Robert Woods had the ball in their hands, so that’s exactly what he dialed up to start the game.
“It was kind of taken off of last year’s last game,” Kiffin said. “If we can get the ball in 2 and 9 in space we’re going to be pretty good. That was just a way to get a quick out to No. 9 right off the bat, out in the field against a softer corner and see if he could make the guy miss.”
Every pass play to Lee is not intended to end with a touchdown but that’s certainly his mentality whenever he touches the ball. He’s like Mike Williams with the elusiveness of Reggie Bush. He showed off shades of both players' moves with his 75-yard touchdown catch to start the game and again with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter.
“I always got the mindset to take it all the way,” Lee said.
Said Kiffin: “You see him make cuts when people are coming to the side. It’s why I think he’ll be the best one ever when it’s all said and done.”
Barkley showed slightly more restraint the third time USC had the ball, driving the Trojans on an eight-play, 83-yard drive over 4:12 before hitting Woods for a 20-yard touchdown.
Before the first quarter was even over, Barkley had already completed 9-of-13 passes for 220 yard and two touchdowns. By halftime USC was up 35-0 and Barkley had completed 17-of-30 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns. It would have been considered a successful game, let alone a first half by most standards. Then again, Barkley’s standards this season, aren’t like most players' standards.
“It was bittersweet,” Barkley said. “I feel like we could have scored at least 100 points in the first half.”
It’s those kinds of high standards that caused Barkley to yell at Lee as the two were walking off the field late in the third quarter with USC holding a 42-10 lead. Barkley had just been hit on the previous play after Lee cut short his route on a play the two had practiced several times during the offseason. It might have been a play Barkley would have let slide under a similar situation in the past but not now, not this season.
“You practice all these plays in the spring and the summer and you don’t expect those things to happen in the game,” Barkley said. “At the end of the game, on that last drive, you expect perfection. When I’m out there, it’s nothing personal. He knows what I’m expecting from him and I know what he’s expecting from me. If I don’t put a ball where it needs to be, I expect him to get on me because it should be perfect.”
Perfection may be a lofty standard but that’s exactly what may be required of Barkley and USC if they want to meet the high expectations set for them this season.